Moving Forward: Columbus City Schools

Realizing that schools need more than pencils and pep talks, businesses offer expertise and support for levy.

By Jennifer Smith Richards
From the November 2013 issue of Columbus CEO
  • Photo by Ryan M.L. Young
  • File/Dispatch
  • File/Dispatch

They have adopted schools for years. That’s nothing new. Collecting and donating everything from pencils to mittens and hats, too. At the beginning of the school year, you could find them on playgrounds, repainting the sun-bleached United States map on the blacktop and planting trees in the schoolyard. Inside Columbus City Schools’ classrooms, employees of the city’s businesses, large and small, have tutored little kids in reading and become mentors to bigger kids.

But this? This is different.

Columbus’ business community isn’t just helping in the typical tried-and-true ways. In a move that strays far from feel-good volunteering, leaders of some of the city’s biggest companies have been actively trying to find solutions that will fix Columbus schools.

Since the beginning of the year, business leaders have been sitting at the same table with union leaders, politicians, parents and pastors. They’ve been pushing hard for fixes they think will work. Now, they’re pledging financial support, too.

From the outside, at least, it looks like they’ve gone from politely engaged to all in, centered on the belief that what’s wrong with the state’s largest school district must be made right. In some ways, they believe they are to blame.

“The lack of our involvement has been part of the problem,” said Alex Fischer, president and CEO of the Columbus Partnership, a civic organization of the city’s most influential business leaders. BUSINESSES SHOULDER BLAME

The problem, in short, is that there are many problems.

Take a look across Columbus’ 115 schools and there certainly are bright spots and success stories. There are inspiring teachers and strong principals and smart, talented kids.

But this is the reality: Not very many of the schools in Columbus are doing particularly well, academically. As a whole, the district earned four F’s, three D’s and two C’s for academic performance on the state report cards released in August. Only four Columbus schools earned an A grade for passing state standardized tests. Four.

There simply aren’t enough good schools in which to educate the district’s 50,000 children.

And though that sobering look at the city’s educational shortcomings should not have come as a shock to business leaders, it did. For years, the district has had more struggling schools than outstanding ones, but the practice in past years was to celebrate any successes and pledge improvement. The realization that some Columbus City Schools employees had manipulated student data, possibly falsely inflating schools’ academic standing, caught the attention of the Columbus business world. (Investigations by both the state auditor and FBI are ongoing.)

Suddenly, all eyes were on the schools.

“I don’t think any of us had realized just how bad it was,” said Fischer, who said the Partnership already was interested in improving education in Columbus when the scandal illustrated the urgency to do so.

“I’ve often said, when we assess blame to the challenges of Columbus City Schools: The business community has to get in line, because for far too long we probably had our head in the sand.”

Mayor Michael B. Coleman has said publicly that he’s not interested in placing blame. Everyone shoulders the blame, really, for having let the district flail in many ways without stepping in. That’s one reason he said he intervened. The lack of substantive involvement from the business community and others has “been bad for the kids,” Coleman said.

The initial we-must-do-something cry from the mayor and, just as loudly, the Partnership, was met with skepticism at best. At worst, labor unions and some community members called Coleman’s deepened interest in the schools a veiled lunge for mayoral control and insisted Fischer and the city’s big business leaders were was plotting a corporate takeover that would privatize the public schools.

And while business leaders insist they never viewed mayoral control as a magic pill to cure the district’s ills, Coleman acknowledges that a significant number of voices on the 25-member panel he convened in January were calling for a forced takeover of some sort. The panel, called the Columbus Education Commission, was to explore ways to make the district better.

The school board pushed back, wary of both the mayor’s and business community’s intentions. It even passed an official resolution asserting its ultimate authority over the schools and opposing a takeover.

They were tense times, full of ultimatums and defiance.

“The board’s solution was ‘Leave it alone. We got this,’ ” Coleman said. “They said ‘stay in your lane.’ But we should be all in [their] lane!”

Today, those who were involved with the mayor’s panel say it ended up being a remarkable success because such a diverse group was able to reach a consensus. The recommendations they made—ranging from streamlining operations to expanding pre-kindergarten to creating an independent auditor to act as a watchdog—are the basis of the school levy to go before voters in November.

“I’m giving a lot of credit to the business community for stepping up the way they have. And credit to the board for accepting help,” Coleman said. “We’ve got to constantly remind the board that they’re not in this for a takeover. Frankly, I think they’re starting to get it.”

The panel also brought to light the skills that the business community can offer the district beyond Adopt-A-School, said Tanny Crane, president and CEO of the Crane Group. She’s been involved in Columbus schools for years, serving on committees and volunteering.

“We are involved in strategic planning, long-term vision. Leveraging. What we do every day in our business in leverage resources,” Crane said. “Some of our large corporations have top-class recruiters and [human resources] leaders. We, in the business community, are building infrastructure and best-in-class technology.”

Crane and other CEOs were astounded to learn that the computers that teachers use for everything from pulling up lesson plans to logging students’ grades were practically useless. A 30-minute or even hours-long boot-up time was the norm for schools but would be unacceptable in the business world.

“It’s deplorable,” Crane said.

Columbus’ business community has brought “intelligence capital” to the conversation about school quality and the operations side of the district, said Interim Superintendent Dan Good. He took over in July when Superintendent Gene Harris retired. She had been running the district for about 12 years.

“So often, individuals who work in the operations side (of a school district) started in the classroom,” Good said. But the district’s top leaders are learning that Columbus’ business leaders had unique perspective about everything from operational efficiencies to curriculum. The minds of the leaders of the city’s companies had been an untapped, but valuable, resource.

 

BUSINESSES READY TO ENGAGE

Huntington Bank employees adopted West Broad Elementary more than 25 years ago.

Bank employees were just at the building before the start of the school year in August, sprucing it up and delivering heaps of school supplies. And later in the school year, Huntington will help teach students at West Broad the basics of managing money. They will tutor kids in reading and math.

But it is not this long legacy of volunteerism that anyone has in mind when they wonder, “Where has the business community been all these years?”

“I think that’s a fair question—and one I can’t answer,” said George S. Barrett, chairman and CEO of Cardinal Health. “When problems are extremely complex, with different underlying challenges, sometimes people can think they’re too hard.”

Some business leaders say that the old district administration actively worked to shut them out: They knew they weren’t welcome in discussions of school quality. They weren’t educators, so what could they add to the conversation?

The welcome mat is out now. Good has pledged it, and business leaders enthusiastically believe him.

“I think it speaks to a higher message: Hindsight is 20/20. They didn’t know (how much the schools were struggling) and schools didn’t feel welcoming. We have to collectively own responsibility for not having a more collaborative organization,” Good said.

The educators involved in the new, business-included conversation about how to improve Columbus schools have praised the business leaders for the amount of time they’ve invested.

But this isn’t altruism.

Columbus’ business leaders care, sure. But they need something from the district. They need it to get better because they need it to produce better-prepared future employees.

“From a pure business perspective, we obviously want to thrive and grow,” said Barrett. “It requires an educated and prepared workforce.”

The mayor heard the message, over and over: “They were saying, ‘We cannot find enough qualified people for our jobs.’ They have a direct concern about the workforce.”

A case in point: Crane Plastics has a plant on the South Side of Columbus. A few years ago, the company didn’t look far when it needed to hire. Crane wanted quality employees who lived on the South Side. They had a great deal of trouble finding them.

Before, business found smaller-scale ways to exert some influence on the potential workforce the district produces. It had a voice in creating and designing the offerings at the Columbus Downtown High School and Fort Hayes Career Center.

It has pushed to propel more kids to college through I Know I Can, the nonprofit that works exclusively with Columbus students. And dozens of businesses and nonprofits have linked with Columbus Alternative High School to offer internships to students that last throughout the school year.

It’s just not enough, though. Too many high schools are struggling. The graduation rate is far too low (more than two of every 10 Columbus students don’t earn a diploma in four years) and the bottom line is that all the schools need to get better if the district is going to be part of an economic development solution.

As some business leaders see it, there’s only one way to fix things now: The levy. They believe it is the ultimate road map, drawn of the Columbus Education Commission’s ideas and shaped with the feedback from the city’s CEOs.

And as Mark Real points out, the business community has regularly supported school levies. Real is president and CEO of KidsOhio.org, a Columbus nonprofit that studies education and helped with the mayor’s commission.

“They are often perceived as ‘We don’t want more taxes.’ But don’t forget that they supported the 2009 income tax. Business will pay the majority of the costs,” Real said.

It will be costly. The combined levy/bond issue on the November ballot is 9.01 mills. It would raise $515 million ($175 million of that would renovate or rebuild schools) over the next five years. For the owner of a $100,000 home, it’s an extra $315 on top of the existing $1,328 he or she already pays. For the owner of a multimillion dollar corporation …

“It’s not a quick ‘yes,’ ” Crane said. “It’s a big ask. And it’s not just the levy. [Coleman is] asking companies for a multiple year commitment to invest in the schools. … We have to invest. We have to invest now.”

One mill of the levy, or $8.5 million per year, would go to expanding or opening high-performing charter schools (the mayor is quick to point out that he’s not talking about ones run by for-profit management companies). This has never been done before in Columbus and required a change to state law that moved quickly through the legislature. It now requires the district to ask voters specifically about the charter-sharing idea at the polls.

An equal amount would be set aside to expand pre-K, to fix the woefully slow and inadequate technology in classrooms, and to replicate or grow the schools in the district that are working well.

There’s really no devil in the details for the city’s business leaders, though, said Real. For the most powerful corporate leaders in Columbus, the mechanics of how money will be shared with charter schools or who will provide pre-K services or how the external auditor position would work is little more than minutiae.

“They see this as an up-or-down vote on ‘Will Columbus move forward?’ ” Real said.

There’s a plan that makes what many believe are substantive changes to the city’s education landscape. The mayor and top business leaders say it will make the city’s schools better.

“It’s a big sacrifice and a big recognition that, on the one hand, money is not the end-all. We have to invest in the reforms that we have developed through the work of the Columbus Education Commission,” Fischer said. “This isn’t about investing in the status quo. This isn’t check-the-box, get a levy passed, we’re done. In fact, I think that’s been a problem in the past.”

 

NECESSARY INVESTMENT

The recent unified front— complete with hearty declarations of support for the sizeable tax request—may give the impression that the entire business community has been on board, clapping along, since day one. That’s not the case.

“There were skeptics and naysayers, myself included, three to four years ago,” Fischer said.

The limping economy in recent years has begged for intense focus on economic development. So there were some CEOs who wondered if perhaps they were heading into territory they shouldn’t be. Fixing urban schools? Not a winning battle. Some wondered: Where else in the country has a large-scale reform of urban school districts truly worked?

Besides, they said, the economy has to come first.

But even some of those who early on advised caution have come around, Fischer said. They get it now: So go the schools, so goes Columbus. This is economic development.

Or, as Cardinal’s Barrett sees it: “It’s as good an investment as we make.”